The Impressionists: Art and Liberty

The subtle relationship between personal and creative freedom

Paris Street in Rainy Weather (1877) by Gustav Caillebotte. Art Institute of Chicago. Source Wikimedia Commons

liberty (noun)
the freedom to live as you wish or go where you want

We are tend to think of Impressionists painters — that roll-call of famous names, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Pissarro, etc. — as the most free of individuals. They were artists who preferred to depict life’s simpler recreations: dappled sunlight on a luncheon party, a boating trip on a river, a busy street teeming with people. These are paintings that delight in the impromptu setting. They treat life as a series of encounters and, not unlike photography, capture fleeting moments from the flow of life.

The Impressionists are also noted as having painted en plein air — outdoors — which, however you think about it, insists on visions of easels propped up on river banks and paintbrushes at-the-ready. These artists painted daylight and fresh air, their sensibilities accordant with the best of city and country life. In other words, they were spontaneous and free.

The poet Baudelaire used the term ‘flâneur’ to express the style of this modern painter. The flâneur is a French word meaning ‘stroller’, ‘lounger’ or ‘saunterer’. Baudelaire turned the flâneur into an idealised figure who represented all that was exciting and vital about living in the burgeoning city environs of 18th Paris. In Baudelaire’s own words of 1863:

“For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. […] We might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life.”

A flâneur was a person who enjoyed their leisure with a lucid eye-for-detail. An urban explorer, you might say, or a connoisseur of the street. Few artists exemplify this more than Gustave Caillebotte (1848–1894) whose portraits and street scenes express all the ‘flow of life’ that Baudelaire celebrated. Caillebotte made his debut in the second Impressionist exhibition in 1876; his paintings attend to all the details of idling recreation and social etiquette that his upper-class background had tutored him in.

If the flâneur presided over the spectacle of ‘universal life’ then it goes without saying that such a person must have had the freedom to access those places. It is interesting to note, then, that 19th century Paris remained a highly codified society; one that, like many European cities at the time, existed under certain conditions of etiquette about who could move where and when.

Not all artists were as free to move about the city. Or as the writer Julian Barnes so pithily described, “What you can paint depends on what you are allowed to see.”

During the 19th century in particular, the roles of men and women were sharply defined between public and domestic.

Take the work of the American artist Mary Cassatt (1844–1926), for instance, who lived in France for most of her adult life and mixed with many of the Impressionist painters of the time. Yet in contrast to many of the ‘outdoor’ painters, Cassatt’s work accords with the restrictions placed on women’s access to public spaces, often painting scenes of domesticity or intimate family portraits.

‘Mother and Child’ by Mary Cassatt (1844–1926). Source Wikiart

For the feminist art historian Grisela Pollock, the figure of the flâneur is the embodiment of the ‘artistic gaze’. And since he is a figure free to explore “the socially fluid public world of streets, popular entertainment and commercial or casual sexual exchange,” he can only be a man.

Pollock’s analysis is designed to disrupt the assumption that such an artist embodies a universal creative impetus where the flâneur and his masculine gaze are confirmed as creative norms. Instead, she would like us to consider the history of art as the history of (gendered) freedom and not just a history of (ungendered) human creativity.

And yet things are not quite that straight forward. Despite the restrictions upon women concerning access to public spaces, there were places were women and men might mingle and gaze upon one another with relative freedom. One such place was the Paris Opéra. As the art historian Tamar Garb put it, the opera was “one of the very few such subjects to which [women] had access…to the world of urban spectacle.”

Left: In the Loge (1878) by Mary Cassatt. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Source Wikimedia Commons. Right: La Loge (The Theatre Box) (1874) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Courtauld Institute of Art, London. Source Wikimedia Commons

To understand the precise details of the encounters that might take place at the opera, it is worth thinking first about the limitations on a woman’s movements at the opera. As Barnes explains:

…At the Paris Opéra in the 1870s, women were not under any circumstances permitted to sit in the orchestre. And they could only sit in the parterre, or rear stalls, if accompanied by a man. An unaccompanied woman could only attend a matinée. At evening performances, women were allowed to attend in pairs or groups, when they might sit together in the upper loges, or boxes. And needless to say, no respectable woman was allowed backstage, where only the entitled male — a self-declared ‘connoisseur’ of women, whether as lecher, or in rare cases, as painter — might tread.

In the Loge (1878) by Mary Cassatt. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Source Wikimedia Commons.

In her painting In the Loge (1878), shown above-left, Mary Cassatt has painted the view that precisely agrees with Barnes’ list of regulations: a view from an upper box. Yet, far from showing a woman suppressed by society, Cassatt has painted a figure who is patently engaged and present in the moment, an active participant of the opera, with all the intimations of education and agency suggestive of a meaningful inner life.

Cassatt has also included a wonderful detail in the top-left corner of the painting, that of a man ogling through a pair of binoculars. This humorous detail appears to make a point further point: that the female spectator is always at risk of becoming the spectacle herself; what Cassatt appears to be saying is that women ought to go about their personal business regardless.

It is interesting to compare Cassatt’s painting with a similar subject painted by Pierre-Auguste Renoir just a few years before. It is also a painting of a woman attending the opera, also in a loge or theatre box.

La Loge (The Theatre Box) (1874) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Courtauld Institute of Art, London. Source Wikimedia Commons

In Renoir’s image, the woman depicted is shown in a great deal more finery, with an elaborate necklace and a grand evening dress pinned with roses. She herself is the subject of the painting: a fresh young woman apparently bewitched by the spectacle of the opera and its audience. She is much less of a participant compared to Cassatt’s image. With her eyes averted and her companion otherwise engaged, she is the spectacle upon which we, as the viewer, are invited to look. As Tamar Garb puts it: “It is as though the carefully contrived lack of focus in the woman’s eyes assures the viewer of the comfort of being able to stare without being observed.”

The comparison between the Cassatt and Renoir paintings is designed to draw out a subtle idea, that when an artist depicts something, they do so from a perspective that is often underpinned by the broader conditions of a society. As viewers looking back over the history of art, it’s extremely useful to be aware of these factors.

Yet it would be wrong to think too simplistically about this. For as Mary Cassatt shows, the sophistication of a work of art need not be limited to the specific freedoms enjoyed by the artist. It is one of the wonders of art, that it has the potential to transcend material circumstance and express to ideas that pose a challenge to those conditions.

Christopher P Jones writes about art and culture. Sign up for more.


A magazine of literature, arts, culture, and opinion

Christopher P Jones

Written by

Art historian, critic, novelist, artist. Author of How To Read Paintings:


A magazine of literature, arts, culture, and opinion

Christopher P Jones

Written by

Art historian, critic, novelist, artist. Author of How To Read Paintings:


A magazine of literature, arts, culture, and opinion

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